Scratching an Etch

Coming back home can be a bit like traveling back in time, bringing back feelings and dynamics that were long ago left in the dust. In Chicago, I've been staying at my family's home and have also had a chance to reconnect with some childhood friends. Walking down familiar streets and interacting with people who have known me from way-back-when, I am reminded of previous versions of myself I'd shed like snake skins. It is refreshing to be reminded of where I came from and I'm thankful to have a place to come back to that sparks these memories.

During my first few days back in town, I dug up my old art materials, too cumbersome to bring with me across the world when I left for Istanbul five years ago. Among the paints, brushes, and cans of half-used gesso, were zinc and copper plates and inks used for etching, some used and some still bare.

I was first introduced to etching by a neighbor of mine when I was in high school, an accomplished representational painter and printmaker named Dorian Allworthy, who opened up her home to me and very generously shared her work and materials. She had a printing press in her basement and I would come by once in a while and help her print, all the while absorbing the process. Her house was filled with antique artifacts and paintings, which felt like such a treat to look through. She soon gave me a small zinc plate and an image to copy as a drypoint etching for homework, which I worked on diligently at home, eager to see how it would turn out once printed. The intimidating part of working on a drypoint etching was that erasing was not easy- one had to be confident and committed to the mark, which was scratched into the metal surface with a sharp metal stylus. Printing, however, was magic- to see a set of scratches turned into a cohesive picture with varied and rich tones was exhilarating. I was intrigued. I worked on a few more plates in high school and later at the Mission Cultural Center  for Latino Arts in San Francisco, where drop-in printmaking classes were offered weekly.

I received a tabletop printing press as a gift from my parents to print at home. This project, unfortunately, never got off the ground and the printing press sat to gather dust until I found it again this year along with my materials. With renewed motivation, I set up the press and made a space for it in a corner of my room. I prepped a plate, using a photograph of the Hagia Triada- a church off of Taksim Square in Istanbul. I dug in with the stylus, marking the shiny surface with a series of lines that gleamed when they caught the light, some soft and others dug deeper down. After working on the plate for a while, I decided to see how it would turn out. I ran it through the press, but for one reason or another, the print came out extremely light. It could have been a number of factors- maybe I had wiped too much ink off or not wet the paper enough. Perhaps I had not applied enough pressure to the plate. Wanting to jog my memory about the process, I got in touch with Dorian, who invited me over to play with her press and a new letter press she now owned.

Stepping into her home was like zapping back to my teenage years and I delighted again in taking in the antique aesthetic of her house and her beautiful paintings, in different stages of completion, leaning or hanging against the walls. In the flurry of catching up over several cups of tea, we never got around to using the letter press, but Dorian did pull a print from my plate. She gave me tips for continuing to work on it- to look for the darks in the image and emphasize them more to get a wider range of tones from the print. And, so I headed home to do just that. For the next week, I worked on the plate off and on, scratching out darker areas and refreshing old lines. The process felt almost like sculpting as I carved deep into the plate to deepen the dark parts of the image scratch by scratch. As I ran the stylus on the plate, small threads of metal sprang up behind it like silver ribbons.

I reran the stylus through the previous grooves I'd made. Each time a print is pulled, the lines get slightly duller and the plate needs to be refreshed with new scratches every once in a while to take in more ink. It struck me that an etching is a good analogy for memory- the image decreasing in sharpness over time and needing to be reworked, the lines redrawn and made more crisp. Retracing the stylus down the same lines, like walking down familiar streets, stimulates the image anew and brings it back to life. I have yet to pull a new print of my plate, but am eager to see what it will look like.

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